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I have been looking at various sources to try to figure out the difference between "mündig", "volljährig", and "reif".

I understand that "reif" means mature, but also that "mündig" can also be translated as mature, as well as "of age", which is what "volljährig" seems to be. I've also seen sentences such as "sich mündig verhalten", but not "sich volljährig verhalten".

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Mündig means one had no Vormund, no legal guardian. In the not-so-far- away past, people could be entmündigt in Germany if certain conditions were met (age-related insanity for example). Now people are betreut in this case, so the word mündig came out of use.

Reif is usually combined with geistig or körperlich and means adult-like.

Volljährig means "18 years old" in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. It was different (21, 19, 20 years) before.

See the whole table if you want to bemuse yourself.

  • Thanks for your response! Very confusing indeed! So, in terms of translating these terms, would "sich mündig verhalten" be, "behave responsibly/like an adult", and "sich reif verhalten" be "behave maturely/not like a child"? – Mark Apr 12 '18 at 12:29
  • Sich mündig verhalten is a really odd phrase, same as mündiger Bürger etc. There's no deeper logic in that, they all use mündig for being the contrary of unmündig which means you have a legal custodian. The meaning almost always is don't treat us as four-year-olds and then don't act as four-year-olds. – Janka Apr 12 '18 at 15:05
  • Reif is also a minefield. Sich reif verhalten means thinking about risks before taking it, but e.g. sich reif geben means faking it, to the extend of faking your age for getting access to clubs, drugs and more. – Janka Apr 12 '18 at 15:10
  • Haha! German is so difficult :) How would you translate: He needs to act more mature. (Stop acting like a kid, act like an adult). – Mark Apr 12 '18 at 15:19
  • I would translate this as "Er sollte sich erwachsener verhalten/benehmen" (erwachsen=grown up as an adjective) – ohno Apr 12 '18 at 15:41
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You can say "sich reif verhalten" I would say it can be used as a synonym for "erwachsen". Both words can be used as adverbs. Mündig und volljährig are normally not used as adverbs and these terms normally come up in formal language, not in every day language.

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My opinion is sufficiently different to the ones given, so I provide an own answer.

The words are different enough, so that they are exchangeable only in very rare cases:

  • volljährig of age, old enough to marry, to smoke, to drink liquor and sign contracts. This is a term with strong legal connotation. Therefore you can't behave volljährig, either you are or you are not.
  • mündig May mean of age too, but the second Duden definition is more generic and appropriate in my opinion: as an adult being able to form judgements and decisions of ones own. (Surely it is not too difficult to imagine adults, which will never qualify for this meaning.)
  • reif I would not recommend to use it for humans at all except in phrases like reif für sein Alter, frühreif and with similar additional explanation. It is frequently used as marketing term for the senior generation.
  • erwachsen (corresponding to adult), the most generic term, in case of doubt use this.

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